The statute of limitations long ago expired on the small misdemeanor Phyllis Lang may or may not have committed as a teenage volunteer at the small library in her hometown of Elgin, S.C. “There was a locked case of books that were deemed not appropriate for the average audience — books like Marjorie Morningstar and Gone With the Wind, anything that had any kind of sex,” she recalls. “I knew where the key was, so I could get into the case and read the ones young people weren’t supposed to see.”
Chalk her inquisitiveness up to being a skilled researcher — an endeavor many find tedious‚ but not Lang. “I’m happiest doing research, less happy trying to find a home for it,” she says. Yet it seems she has always found homes for her interests. She has co-written three documentaries about local history with filmmaker Chanse Simpson: one about Thomas Walton Patton, a founding resident of Asheville, one about Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church and one about Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church.
She and her late husband moved to Asheville in 1979, when he received a position at UNC Asheville. She “tagged along,” quickly discovering the North Carolina Room at Pack Library’s rich archives of the region’s political and cultural history. Lang is a longtime volunteer with at the North Carolina Room and a founding member of the Friends of the North Carolina Room Board; both were renamed the Buncombe County Special Collections earlier this year.
Lang spoke with Xpress about teaching at UNCA, her gift to the Buncombe County Special Collections and why she wishes she could experience Asheville’s art deco architectural heydey.
This interview has been lightly edited and condense for clarity.
Was 1979 a good time to arrive in Asheville? I don’t think we realized all the things that happened in the 1980s that led to what we see now. Asheville was not then the city it is today. It took a long time for downtown to become a vibrant place. We were sitting in the middle of it but didn’t realize it was happening. No one then would have forecast Asheville becoming so popular.
How did you use the Buncombe County Special Collections as a professor? In the ’90s I was director of the honors program at UNCA. Every fall I taught a class of about 15 freshman and always assigned a research project related to 100 years prior to that particular year. For example, in 1998 they did a project based in 1898. We’d go to the Buncombe County Special Collections, and the staff would introduce them to the microfilm, city directories, clip files and photo collections. One student did all the programs for the Grand Opera House in 1898. One took the corner where the restaurants Rhubarb and Posana are now and researched what was there 100 years ago.
Clearly you are someone who loves doing research. Yes. If I’m researching diaries and letters, seeing the handwriting of someone who was alive in a previous time, I can read those words and understand a little bit about that person. The Patton video began with letters he wrote to his family during the Civil War. I love primary resources research, diaries, letters — things directly connected to a person or event.
What advice would you give someone who finds research overwhelming? Pick a point and start! It doesn’t matter where, just get started and then the whole thing starts to roll along. If you look up the obituary of a person to know their dates, that obituary will give you information about occupations, family, church. That leads you in other directions and then be amazed at where that leads you!
How do you organize your research? I use three-ring spiral binders, with sections for categories. It’s probably not the most efficient way, but it works for me.
What appeals to you about making documentaries? I have always been intrigued by how we can tell the story of the past in ways that are interesting to people now. The Patton video used photographs primarily from the photo collection from North Carolina Room.
Earlier this year, you bequeathed the Buncombe County Special Collections a two-part gift of $15,000. Part of the gift has already been used used to create a Buncombe County timeline, which is located on a mural on the back wall of the Special Collections room and spans 10,000 B.C. to the present. Did you stipulate what you wanted the gift to be used for? The gift was a way to give back, with no strings attached, just to be used in the best possible way. I think the timeline is wonderful. If you want to know quickly the history of Asheville, you can look at that timeline and see how it fits things in.
Is there a period in Asheville’s history that you would like to go back in time and visit for a week? I would have liked to have gone back when E.W. Grove was building the Grove Park Inn — I think around 1913. That was a very lively time in the history of Asheville, into the ’20s, when Douglas Ellington was designing and overseeing the building of City Hall, First Baptist Church and the S&W Cafeteria. The architecture being created then in Asheville was so exciting. It would have been fun to be there and watch those buildings being constructed.
Are there particular libraries you love? My husband and I did quite a bit of traveling, and wherever we went, we visited the libraries. One of the most interesting we saw was in Reno. They had a lot of gambling money and built this wonderful modern library with trees growing up in the middle of it. I thought it was the most wonderful thing that you could take your book and go sit under a tree and read.
Do you have any books you’d recommend about libraries? The Library Book by Susan Orlean! It’s the story of the fire in the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It’s a great book, all about libraries.